Venezuela’s Election Lunacy: Results and Consequences

September 28th, 2010

By Dan Miller

The opposition MUD alliance (seriously) won 52 percent of the votes, but got 37 percent of the seats. Hmm.

*  *  *

Christopher Hitchens observed a few weeks ago that el Presidente Chávez, whom he had visited in 2008 along with Chávez’s close friend Sean Penn and whose antics he still follows, is barking mad. As Hitchens put it:

Chávez … is very close to the climactic moment when he will announce that he is a poached egg and that he requires a very large piece of buttered toast so that he can lie down and take a soothing nap.

Unfortunately, a nap is not what Chávez has in mind:

In a televised broadcast from the Miraflores presidential palace, Chavez spoke out against opposition leaders: “They will never enter here again, the immoral ones, the mobsters, the stateless ones, the traitors. I am going to say this until the last day of my life.”

In Venezuela, where Chávez is by no means alone in his dementia and lunacy does not augur defeat, insanity is more useful as an excuse for whatever happens than as valid predictor of the future. Even trying to figure out what happened can induce insanity.

Turnout was reasonably high, officially at 66.45% of Venezuela’s approximately 17,000,000 registered voters. “Small incidents” at a few polling places were “controlled,” according to the National Electoral Council, which stated: “This shows responsiveness not only of the CNE, but also of our Bolivarian Armed Forces and Plan República.” According to the attorney general: “The election was totally normal and was remarkably among the most successful ones in the Venezuelan history.” However, shortly after the close of the polls, opposition civil association Súmate said it received 911 complaints: 760 from voters, 114 from election witnesses, and 56 from poll workers. There were also various complaints of significant irregularities reported here, here, here, here, and elsewhere.

After a far longer delay in reporting than anticipated, the official preliminary results were reported at 3:30 a.m. EDT Monday. The president of the opposition alliance had stated earlier:

After all this time telling us that we have the most modern, most automated, most perfect election system in the world, and after they promised they would publish the results two hours following closure of polling sites, more than six hours have passed after the polls closed and results have not been announced.

We are waiting, because we do respect the law (which prevents publication of election results before the first official bulletin.) We know what happened, we already know what happened.

It seems likely that the official announcement of results had to be delayed until approved by el Presidente Chávez and that he was unhappy with them.

According to the official preliminary results, the Chavista party (PSUV) “won” at least 96 of 165 seats (58.2%) in the National Assembly. The PSUV previously had 139 seats (84.2%), with the rest held by various post-2005 breakaway leftist parties, including PPT and PODEMOS with six seats each. Chávez does not much like the breakaway parties, the “traitors, defenders of the empire and bourgeoisie.” The PSUV had a net loss of 43 seats.

The recently but only grudgingly united opposition parties (Unidos para Venezuela, with the unfortunate acronym MUD) got at least 61 seats (37%). Following the last election in 2005, which they boycotted, the opposition parties had no seats, so while the net gain of 61 seats is perhaps a bit less significant than might otherwise appear, it is not all that much less significant in view of the gross disparity between popular votes and seats obtained. However, as explained below, it should make a big difference.

The electorate had been thought more or less evenly distributed. According to the official preliminary results, the PSUV got 5,222,364 votes and the MUD got 5,054,114, a difference of 168,250 votes (1.64%). According to MUD, its candidates got 52% of the popular vote.

[Changes] to the electoral system rammed through by the government meant that a narrow popular vote lead is enough to give the PSUV a landslide victory. The changes abolish proportional representation, even though it is written into the 1999 constitution. And poorer, rural states where Mr. Chávez has more support will be significantly over-represented in the new assembly.

The districts more heavily supportive of Chávez also have more seats, for that reason.

Although Chávez got a majority of the seats, he did not achieve the two-thirds super majority needed to pass special enabling legislation “to appoint and remove, at will, the justices of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the Comptroller, the Prosecutor General, and the Ombudsman.”

The opposition parties were unhappy but not crying:

Opposition leaders celebrated at the coalition’s headquarters in Caracas, where they hugged and kissed each other amid smiling supporters.

In the western state of Zulia, where the opposition won 12 of the 15 posts up for grabs, Gov. Pablo Perez attributed the opposition’s gains to the coalition’s decision to field a single candidate for each of the 165 seats being contested.

It was not quite the knockout win Chávez sought, but better than he should have done in view of the widespread problems of crime, food shortage, inflation, and corruption, as well as water and electricity problems. The reported results are not extremely far off from those projected (69 MUD seats, 96 PSUV seats) on September 19 by Daniel Duquenal, a blogger in Venezuela, based to some extent on a “rosy scenario.” On September 23, he wrote a very sad article on what seemed likely to happen, noting that:

[Since] February 2009 I have slowly but surely come to grasp that the real problem is that Venezuelans are not democrats and in fact probably never were, except maybe briefly, for a few weeks at most, sometime after the Revolución de Octubre. And they probably never acted as democrats except during the regime of Medina and perhaps up to a point under the presidency of Leoni and the first weeks of the Caldera first term. All the rest of our independent history, that is roughly 96.37%, we have been looking for the Cacique [Big Chief] who will tell us what to do to make out like a bandit.

Notwithstanding the high turnout, some who oppose Chávez may not have bothered to vote — they knew the fix was in and could see no point in risking governmental retribution. Some nominal Chávez supporters may also have abstained. Calling Venezuela a democracy no more makes it one than calling a donkey an elephant changes its appearance or behavior.

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6 Responses to “Venezuela’s Election Lunacy: Results and Consequences”

  1. Dan Miller |

    Here is a compilation of the numbers of votes and resulting seats in the national assembly, based on the best available data. It is from this article in Venezuela News and Views.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Great article, Dan. Very interesting, lots of good information.

    Chavez probably is “barking mad” but he’s also intelligent, crafty, and apparently willing to do whatever is necessary to maintain his power. The irony may be that not getting everything he wanted out of this election may motivate him to clamp down even more strongly in the future.

    I hope the U.S. has learned from the way we’ve dealt with Cuba over the years that trying to isolate Venezuela and imposing sanctions isn’t particularly effective. The people of Venezuela will eventually get rid of Chavez, and we can help that process along by promoting positive relations with them. Cuba under Raul is loosening up, and even Fidel is saying a few positive things. Chavez may be just enough of a smart survivor to go the same way, particularly if he sees benefits for himself in changing his ways.

  3. Dan Miller |

    Tom, I agree that although Chavez may be nuts that does not mean that he is terminally stupid and that he will do all that he can to hold on to power. Most anything can happen in Venezuela and usually does. That said, there will be lots of Venezuelans royally upset if he goes to far, and they get to vote for or against Chavez in 2012, assuming that the elections actually go forward.

  4. Tom Carter |

    From what I know about Venezuela and its people, I think you’re right that Chavez needs to be careful about going too far. But he surely knows that, and he might think he has to go so far that the people’s ability to rein him in, or throw him out, is totally eliminated.

    In any case, we have to keep sight of the facts that Venezuela isn’t Cuba and Chavez isn’t Castro. Our unrelenting hostility to Cuba over the years probably helped enable Castro to stay in power, and I’d hate to see the same negative approach aimed at Venezuela if only because the times and the circumstances are very different.

  5. Dan Miller |

    I agree that years ago, and at least after the USSR ceased to be a big time sponsor of Cuba, we would have done better to “hug ’em to death.” To the extent that we can do that vis a vis Venezuela while pushing to ameliorate the human rights mess under Chavez, it’s probably well worth exploring.

  6. Dan Miller |

    Chávez has announced plans to spend one billion dollars to construct “at least 25,000 homes” in the Caracas area. Disregarding the “at least,” that comes to $40,000 per home, a perhaps small amount in the United States but probably significantly more than is needed in Venezuela for what would be considered adequate housing. Significantly less would be needed in Pánama to make it happen – probably less than $10,000 per house.

    Chavez said that he conceived the project to build at least 25,000 houses in the capital after the deaths of at least 14 people over the past week, after their rickety dwellings collapsed due to heavy rains that have drenched Caracas.

    Last Friday, the president admitted that one of the “debts” his government owes to the country after his 11 years in office is “the gigantic” problem of the housing deficit.

    Venezuela is facing a deficit of about 2 million housing units, and the Venezuelan Construction Chamber says that the country needs to construct some 200,000 units annually to overcome the situation.

    Was this a reaction to Sunday’s election results? Most likely. It is also likely that a significant portion of the one billion dollars will be skimmed off the top by various government officials. Did the problem only recently come to Chavez’s attention?” Unlikely. This seems to be one step toward making the folks happy and, consistently with past promises, unlikely to go much beyond the talking it up stage. As noted in the linked article,

    The president, over the past four years, has appointed about eight ministers in the housing area in a so-far-failed attempt to reduce the housing deficit.

    Let the games begin.

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